Appointing a grocery ombudsman will achieve nothing but cost increases

It’s a funny word, Ombudsman. Apparently it’s Old Swedish in origin, and Sweden established a Parliamentary Ombudsman as long ago as 1809. Ours did not arrive until 1967, but we have taken to this Nordic import as keenly as we did to Abba, and now have nine different UK Government-appointed Ombudsmen covering everything from housing to legal services, pensions to telecoms.

Please don’t let us take it into double figures by inflicting one on the grocery industry. Because the English word that springs most readily to mind in conjunction with that Swedish one is “useless”. You can’t raise an issue with the original Parliamentary Ombudsman unless you do it through an MP, and even then nearly half the complaints are rejected without investigation. Those that do make it through the obstacle course typically take 40 weeks to resolve.

The internet is riddled with criticism of the English Local Government Ombudsmen, mainly because all three of them are former council chief executives, suspected of sympathising with their former colleagues. My brother’s pension fund was shrunk dramatically by awful financial advice and mismanagement, but he could only obtain redress in court; the Pensions Ombudsman was not empowered to resolve his complaint, and could award only derisory compensation anyway.

What on earth does the Competition Commission hope to accomplish by asking the Government to impose an Ombudsman on the grocery industry? The only certain outcome will be more bureaucracy, frustration and cost.

The Government is always inclined to legislate for PR purposes in a way that puts a sticking plaster over perceived public concerns, but does not fix the underlying problem. Take, for example, knife crime. What do they hope to achieve by making it a criminal offence to sell a knife or even a razor blade to someone under 18? Any child can get a knife from anywhere – the kitchen drawer being the obvious place to start. And God help them if they need to start shaving.

When I was young penknives, a piece of string and a sixpence were standard issue for boys; I wonder how many Parliamentary hours would be devoted now to clamping down on my catapult.

The same tendency to knee-jerk legislative overkill is evident in the draconian crackdown on alcohol sales that I have already written about, and the infamous Dangerous Dogs Act.

Businessmen have to prioritise, but legislators seemingly don’t know the meaning of the word. Spending money on useless Ombudsmen and quangos apparently ticks all their boxes, while they happily skimp on such luxuries as helicopters and body armour for Afghanistan.

If a grocery Ombudsman is created, he or she will be there to fix a problem that does not exist; and, if it did exist, an Ombudsman would not fix it. All it will do is increase costs and therefore ultimately put up prices to the consumer.

There have been many enquiries by the Competition Commission in recent years into supermarket power, the alleged abuse of suppliers, and retail competitiveness in general. It has cost us all millions as both retailers and taxpayers, but never found evidence of a problem. Yet the notion persists that the Government needs to curry favour with the public by putting in “safeguards” that will prove as effective as a pair of inflatable armbands on the Titanic.

The plain truth is that all big companies (not just retailers) will often bully small suppliers. Big suppliers are equally likely to bully small traders. It is in the nature of negotiation, whatever industry you are in and indeed in most human relationships. In short, we are dealing with a simple fact of life that nothing is likely to change, and certainly not the appointment of an Ombudsman. The public interest will always be protected by this simple fact: retailers would kill each other for market share, and can only gain it by serving the public well and giving them what they want.

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